Photo courtesy McDaniel's Photography
The switch is off.
Since this is Andrew Whitworth's day off, the affable and approachable giant of the Bengals offensive line is calmly driving his just-as-large vehicle back to Paul Brown Stadium after a Learning Is Cool rally. This is a combination block he pulls off with Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis's foundation a couple of times a year. Like several of his teammates, Whitworth speaks at one of the schools in the four districts belonging to the Marvin Lewis Community Fund's massive 28,000-student effort in grades one through eight to encourage and incentivize kids to get on the honor roll.
Today the big tires crunched through the residue of an early morning snowstorm on I-74 as the GPS pointed him to Cincinnati Public Schools' Aiken High School, where he greeted the seventh and eighth graders in the new gym, handed out some advice, autographed footballs, and the story of Molly Harper.
"She was the daughter of the coach and she was just as big as me," Whitworth is saying about his first football experience along about the seventh grade in steamy West Monroe, La., a football hotbed where he had yet to catch the fever.
The kids at Aiken were instructed to write out their questions on a card and Whitworth knew exactly what story he would tell when asked, "Have you ever failed at anything?"
"She ran me over," Whitworth says. "I tell that story for a couple of reasons. One, never quit. And two, I was just bigger than everybody else. Size, expectations, it doesn't matter. If you're going to be good at something, you have to apply yourself."
Whitworth applied himself so well he went to the Pro Bowl last season as a left tackle, the position he played most of the last five years in helping the Bengals go to three playoffs. But now that he has played left guard so well the past two games, the lift he has given the offense heading into what the Bengals hope is their fourth postseason in the last five years has been violently palpable.
"If you're going to play guard, you have to be violent at some point," Whitworth says. "You have to throw a punch, you have to move your feet. You have to punch people and move because if you're not moving people, you're getting nothing. It's just going to be a stalemate."
At all 6-7, 325 pounds, Whitworth disdains stalemates for all they're worth. When he flips the switch on the field, people are finding out he thrives on the aggression and violence of the pro's gritty interior that mirrors more MMA than the rules-infested NFL. The thrill of winning the man-on-man battles that move the pile. Off the field, when he flips the switch, he embraces the man vs. man challenge of making things better. When he goes back home to West Monroe this spring, his foundation adds to its list of 150 scholarships for college and organizes a weekend leadership conference where students listen to speakers as well as participate in panel discussions "to give them a unique experience" they've never had.
"You hear the phrase from coaches, 'You can't turn off the switch.' I disagree with that," says Whitworth, who remembers how his coach at LSU handled it. "I didn't play for Les Miles very long, but one thing I took from him is before we started practice we had to stand outside the end zone until it was time to practice. He would tell us when we enter the white lines, that's the only thing that matters. The one thing we're focused on is what is inside these white lines. And our job to do at that moment.
"That stuck with me because in the league, guys have families, guys have other things going on. It truly is your job. It truly is your profession. You've got be able to handle all the things that are outside of football the right way and then when you enter those white lines, be ready to protect your profession."
The switch is off while the Aiken principal, Lisa Votaw, explains why a day like today matters to a school where 99 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. She has handed out 100 gold tickets for positive behavior, 50 in each grade, and the students will attend a VIP lunch after the rally.
"To get to experience hanging out with a pro football player, people they wouldn't get to normally be with, that makes them feel special," Votaw says. "The kids are so excited. They're walking around with gold tickets and chomping at the bit. Many of them are here. Normally our attendance is pretty low on a snow day."
It is days like this why Learning is Cool works. Since Lewis's foundation began the initiative five years ago, Cincinnati Public has had an increase of 155 percent on the A honor roll. The incentive of an end-of-year awards ceremony attended by Lewis and at least a half dozen Bengals is a powerful lure in grades one through eight. The past few years the ceremony has been held at the Cincinnati Zoo and each child gets three tickets for parents and siblings.
Rallies like this one attempt to keep the momentum. It doesn't hurt when people like Reds COO Phil Castellini, sharing the mike with Whitworth on this day, announces that everyone in the gym that gets on the honor roll can attend a Reds game on him as a group next year.
The kids ask Whitworth who his favorite athlete was growing up and he advises them, "I believe everyone is flawed, just like I am, but everybody has great characteristics. It's not books, but it's knowledge. You can learn from anybody you're around all the time, so pay attention, keep your head up, listen, because knowledge is power."
They ask him how school has helped him in his job now and he tells them it's not like in high school and college, when you have to learn only one playbook. In the pros, it is every week and he makes a point of telling them that's one reason he has become "one of the top paid linemen" in the NFL. He knows what catches their attention.
Then they search for prizes and have to find him to get their autographed football and he plays around, moving around on the kids, sitting in the stands with them one minute, hiding behind a projector screen another. Somehow, it takes a few minutes to find the biggest Bengal. He challenges one of them to a question to get a signed football. What is the name of the Bengals mascot? The kid hangs his head. Whitworth agrees. The kids seem to have the toughest time with this question. He hands the ball to the kid. The signature is accompanied with a Who Dey! The kid gets the ball. After the rally, the kids swarm the big man for selfies or just a hand shake.
"Wow," a kid says, adjusting his sun glasses in the hallway. "You're big."
"A good day; that was fun," Whitworth says as he drives away. "It's always a good day when you can encourage people. Let them know you believe in them."
There's some construction up ahead. Some snarled traffic has needlessly blocked the way. Whitworth's eye catches a shortcut through some mud and debris.
"Sometimes if there's not a hole there, you make one," he says with a turn of the wheel. "That's what guards do."
It sounds like the switch is back on.